Charles Darwin’s conversations

Darwin’s two field notebooks, recovered in April 2022, Cambridge University Library

Earlier this year, two of Charles Darwin’s field notebooks (one containing his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch) made headline news all over the world. Having been missing from Cambridge University Library for almost twenty years despite extensive searches (see BBC report here) the UL’s Librarian Dr Jessica Garner decided that these priceless objects had probably been stolen and appealed for help from the police and the public. Almost two years later, she and all the UL staff were delighted last April when the two notebooks were safely, and anonymously, returned to her office in a pink gift bag.

The notebooks will doubtless be the pocket-sized stars of a new exhibition, ‘Darwin in Conversation’ opening at the Cambridge University Library on 9 July and travelling to New York later in 2022. The exhibition comes at the completion of almost 50 years of the Darwin Correspondence Project, founded in 1974 and currently directed by James Secord and Alison Pearn. 2022 marks the last volume of the print edition going to press, and the thirty volumes will contain more than 15,000 letters. There is more information about this extraordinary project here, with most of the letters and extensive contextual notes available to read online as part of the Darwin Project’s vast digital archive.

‘Darwin in Conversation’ exhibition, CUL

Darwin’s most extensive correspondence was his close scientific friends Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Asa Gray and Thomas Huxley, and letters were a way of sharing his ideas with them and other scientists, especially after the first Origin of Species was published in 1859. (Darwin updated five further editions in his lifetime, ‘each edition taking those conversations forward’ as Alison Pearn has said). However, letters were also his primary research tool and during his life he corresponded with around 2,000 people around the world, in what biographer Janet Browne calls ‘an ever-expanding web of scientific correspondence’ from his study in Kent. In Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003), she describes how Darwin corresponded with ‘civil servants, army officers, diplomats, fur-trappers, horse-breeders, society ladies, Welsh hill-farmers, zookeepers, pigeon-fanciers, gardeners, asylum owners and kennel hands’ (p.10), spending the equivalent of £2,000 by 1877 on postage and stationery.

Several of Darwin’s correspondents were scientific women, who at the time were excluded from the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Linnean Society. In her book Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (CUP, 2017) Samantha Evans includes letters from the botanist Lydia E. Becker, who was setting up a small scientific society for women in Manchester and asked Darwin for a copy of one of his botanical papers ‘such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness’ (Evans, p. 212; see my previous blogpost here). In January 1867 Darwin sent Becker two papers from his sickbed, revealing his positive attitude to women in science, and she and her group were touched by his kindness. (See my post ‘The ascent of women at Cambridge’ here.

More than 9,000 of the 15,000 letters that Darwin is known to have written and received are held at the Cambridge University Library, and this new exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see some of them, along with the ‘Tree of Life’ notebooks and much else. It runs until 3 December 2022, and tickets can be booked here. It is accompanied by a contemporary photographic commission by Leonora Saunders re-imagining people who connected with Darwin through letters: ‘those that were rarely seen – and lesser heard.’

Ann Kennedy Smith, July 2022, all rights reserved.

Lydia E. Becker imagined by Leonora Saunders, for ‘Darwin in Conversation’ exhibition, CUL

3 thoughts on “Charles Darwin’s conversations

  1. Mahmoud Chreih says:

    I believe so Ann What a genius Darwin still is Thanks Only Freud I guess rises to his rank Have a pleasant morning from warm Beirut on the Mediterranean If there is anything I can send you from here please let me know M🌹

    Sent from my iPhone



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